Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

A Poilu's Last Letter Home

Letter written by Sergeant Auguste GARROT, eldest of 15 children, 158th Infantry Regiment, fell on the field of honor on 6 April 1916.

My dear parents,

If great misfortune comes, be strong to bear it; you will know that your son fell a glorious death, facing the enemy.

It is you that I defended, my dear parents, it is my homeland, it is the great Republic, one and indivisible.

Thanks to the bloodshed, the peace that my brothers will enjoy will be born. I was the eldest, it was right that I defend them; they will never know, fortunately, the horrors of war.

Father, you can be sure that your son will not have had a minute of failure.

Oh! dad, mom, and all of you my brothers and sisters, until the end I would have had your names on my lips.

Farewell. Long live France!

Source:  Last Letters Written by French Soldiers Fallen on the Field of Honor 1914-1918, by L'Union des Pères and Mothers whose sons died for the Fatherland 

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The Armistice and the Aftermath: The Story in Art

Cover:  Armistice Night in Amiens,
Sir William Orpen
(Order Title HERE)

By John Fairley

Penn & Sword Military, 2018
Recommended by the Editors

As depicted on the cover of this work, Armistice Day in 1918 was arguably the most joyous day of the 20th century. As the guns fell silent, crowds celebrated across the Western world.  The Irish painter William Orpen was in Amiens. The foremost artists of all nations, including Pierre Bonnard in Paris and Gilbert Beal in New York, were also inspired to convey the emotions of the historic moment. Not all the memories of the war, though, were created in the same spirit.

An Advance Dressing Station, Henry Tonks

The tense and difficult process of making the peace ensued. Orpen and Augustus John were assigned as official artists at the Versailles Conference. Painters also recorded on canvas the extraordinary closing events of the war, including the surrender of the entire German battle fleet.  Some chose to depict the spirit of revolution that was in the air.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,  El Lissitzky

One hundred years on, The Armistice and the Aftermath brings together in one large-format book a superb collection  of the most epic paintings and photographs inspired by the war and its lasting influence. The result, with informed and perceptive commentary, is a unique record of those momentous days which not only re-drew the world map but, more ominously, shaped the future of the 20th century. Author and television producer John Fairley is a veteran of the Royal Navy and is now a scholar of  Queen's College, Oxford .

Commentary and cover from publisher's site. Paintings from WikiCommons. All the images here can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Monday, January 29, 2024

The Châteaux Generals: Myth or Reality?

Brigadier F.W. Lumsen, VC, CB, DSO
Killed in Action Near Arras, 4 June 1918

By James Patton

Two long-standing criticisms leveled against British generals in the First World War are the "lions led by donkeys" and the "châteaux generals." The former charge, probably started by the Germans, holds that the senior commanders were wanting in strategic ability, even incompetent, and the latter that said leaders stayed far from the battlefront and were aloof from their soldiers.

These theories are distinctly different. Leaving aside the "lions led by donkeys", does the evidence show that the British generals were too far removed from the action?

Perhaps the first to assert the châteaux generals theory was no less than the wartime (1916 to end) prime minister David Lloyd George (1863–1945) in his 1933 War Memoirs. As a result, the British generals have been seen as isolated from their men, issuing their orders from their comfy digs far in the rear, with little concern for the reality of the trenches, which has devolved into a popular axiom. In particular, out-of-touch examples abound. In a work published in 1961, the Anglo-Indian author Lt. Col. John Masters DSO, OBE (1914–1983) cited an anecdote about a rare visit to the front: Haig asked a scared soldier “Now then, young man, just where and when did you begin this war?” The response: “Beggin’ your lordship's pardon, but I din’t do it. It wuz the bleedin’ Kaiser." Moving up to 1989, Rowan Atkinson’s character Capt. Edmund Blackadder said that the "Big Push" was merely "another gargantuan effort to move his [Haig’s] drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin."

The British did begin the war with some lionhearted generals. In a period of nine days in late September and early October 1914, eight of them were killed, wounded, or captured, an alarming loss of command experience in a force of just seven divisions and one brigade. 

Major General Sir Thompson Capper

Died from Wounds at Loos, 27 September 1915


At the Battle of Loos in 1915 (the first British "Big Push"), five generals (three of whom were division commanders) were killed in a few days. As a result, on 3 October, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) Lieut. Gen. Sir William Robertson (1860–1933) ordered that henceforth all corps and division commanders shouldn’t expose themselves to danger. Thus, if there were châteaux generals, they were created by the CIGS, not by their preference, incompetence, or cowardice.  

What evidence might there be to either support or refute the assertion that the generals really spent their time in safety and comfort? A likely possibility is to examine the statistics on general officer deaths.  In 1995, historians Frank Davis and Graham Maddocks published their book Bloody Red Tabs (still available at Amazon). They found 125 British general officers who died from all causes and in all locations during the war period. Seventy-eight of these died as a result of putting themselves in harm’s way. In addition to Lord Kitchener, on this list are three corps commanders and ten division commanders. Also included are three Australians, three New Zealanders, two Canadians, and three from the Indian Army. At Gallipoli (where there were no châteaux available), eight generals were lost.

Although they couldn’t find a cause of death in every instance, Davis and Maddocks attributed 34 deaths to artillery fire, 22 to small arms fire, three to drowning, four to accidents, and one from contagious disease. None were killed in their headquarters (although two were wounded by artillery while there). It is important to note that a further 146 generals were non-fatally wounded or taken prisoner.  All of those killed or wounded either by artillery or by small arms fire were likely in the thick of the battle. 

What was the experience regarding generals killed in other combatant forces? A modern listing by Gerard Gehin has found that 81 French generals died during the war. Historian Laurent Guillemot has also found that two Belgian, two Italian, and two Romanian generals died. On the Central Powers side there are similar numbers: Germans 70, Austro-Hungarians 40, and Ottomans one. 

Lt General Samuel Holt Lomax
Wounded at First Ypres, 31 October 1914, Died 10 April 1915

Whether or not the châteaux generals accusation was justified, was there a lesson learned here? Probably not by the British; in the Second World War they lost only 29 generals—six of whom died in airplane crashes. Or by the U.S., either, who lost just 23 generals—four of them in airplane crashes.  Clearly, their generals weren’t up at the battlefront, although with greatly improved communications, they were able to be in closer touch than the previous generation. 

It seems that the losers can be more thorough than the winners in their after-action critiques. The German army of 1939–45 definitely emphasized leadership at the forefront. According to historian Josef Foltmann, there were at least 258 German generals killed, died of wounds, or missing in action, plus 128 who died as POWs. U.S. Army historian French MacLean has written: ”German general officer casualties in World War II were staggering and adversely affected unit proficiencies. Due to these losses, divisions were often commanded by colonels [and] regiments by majors...” 

In conclusion, here’s a relevant factoid to ponder over—in World War II the victorious Soviet army lost at least 416 generals. 

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Hentsch Inquiry

Colonel Richard Hentsch, Just Before
His Death in 1918

By Brigadier General J.E. Edmonds, Royal Engineers, ret.

[As the German nation belatedly became aware that its army had suffered an enormous set back along the River Marne in France, a rumor emerged]  that a Saxon General Staff Officer was the guilty party: he had given a wrong order, an order to retire he had no right to give to Prussian troops, and that he had given it in the name of the Supreme Command. . . The officer had been tried by court martial and shot. His name was Lieutenant-Colonel  Richard Hentsch, head of a section of the Great General Staff in the Field. [Hentsch was neither court martialed nor shot, but his role in the Battle of the Marne is still debated today.] Edmonds continues:

So much for rumor. It was not until June, 1919, when the Saxon General-Major Baumgarten-Crusius published his book Die  Marneschlacht, 1914, "compiled from war records," in order to destroy forever the absurd legend about the Third Army and its leader, that some of the facts began to be known. It is to the quarrel between the Saxons and the Prussians that we owe it. Since then, other books on the Marne have  appeared, among them those of the commanders of the German First and  Second Armies, and there have been numerous magazine articles and letters on the subject of Colonel Hentsch. 

Finally, the result of the Court of Enquiry on him in 1917 has just been published in the Militär Wochenblatt, and we have practically the whole story. Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch actually did have a great say in the orders for the retreat from the Marne, and his name will doubtless be connected with the battle for all time. 

Hentsch. . . has expressly written: "I was charged in case of necessity to order the retreat of the whole army to the line St. Menehould-Rheims-Fismes-Soissons. I was expressly given full powers to issue orders in the name of the Supreme Command. . . . In the case of the First Army I drew attention to the full powers conferred on me, and ordered the retreat in the name of the Supreme Command."

At the outbreak of war he was one of the two officers in charge of the Foreign Armies section of the German Intelligence, one half of which dealt with the French Army and those of Western States, and the other with  Russia and the rest of the world. On mobilization he became head of both  parts, and in this capacity accompanied Supreme Headquarters into the field. He appears, however, to have been principally employed in liaison  work in August–September 1914 and was therefore well known to the Army Staffs.

 It is certain that he took out to the First Army the Supreme  Command operation orders of the 5th of September (which ordered von Kluck to face toward Paris). His arrival is mentioned by General-Major von Kuhl, von Kluck's Chief of the General Staff, who further accepted his  covering authority for von Kluck doing something quite different to what  was ordered, and pressing on southward. 

"The taking of a new front towards Paris," Hentsch said, when asked, "need not be hurried, but can be carried out at complete leisure (volle Ruhe)." 

The custom that obtained in the German Army in 1870–1871 regarding the power of General Staff liaison officers of Great Headquarters, is well known; they were not mere messengers and carriers. They were expected to explain orders, and even to give orders if necessary, in the name of the Chief of the General Staff; being supposed to be fully conversant with his wishes and intentions. There was nothing unusual, therefore, in Hentsch  taking upon himself to approve von Kluck's delay in carrying out his orders. No one probably knew this better than von Kuhl, for he had served 22 years on the Great General Staff. Hentsch was well known to him and had served under him. 

During the battle of the Marne, Supreme Headquarters were back at Luxembourg, more than 150 miles from the First Army. Their only means of communication with the armies was by wireless, which worked very slowly, messages taking eight—even 12—hours to get through, and by officers in motor cars. The great machine had been started and by the 6th of September, if not earlier, had escaped control. By the 8th von Moltke had no clear conception of what was happening in the great battle. What he did to obtain news and coordinate action, and what happened in consequence,  can hardly be better described than in the words of the Memorandum signed by Ludendorff on the 24 May 1917, numbered "Chief of the Staff of the Field Army, No. 2229." This paper embodies the results of the enquiry which Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch asked for in 1914 but which was not held until Hindenburg-Ludendorff were in power. It will be given in full. Further information elucidating its plain official statement will then be given. 

"Colonel Hentsch, then Lieutenant-Colonel and Head of a Section on the Staff of the Chief of the Staff of the Field Army, on the 8th of September, 1914, at Great Headquarters, received verbal instructions from the Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army (Generaloberst von Moltke), to motor to the Fifth, Fourth, Third, Second and First Armies (a round trip of some 400 miles) and bring back a clear idea of the situation. In the case that rearward movements had already been initiated (eingeleitet) on the right wing, he was instructed so to direct them that the gap between the First and Second Armies would be again closed, the First Army going, if possible, in the direction of Soissons. 

"Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch was therefore authorized, in the specified circumstances, to give binding instructions in the name of the Supreme Command. 

"He motored on the 8th of September, 1914, to the Headquarters of the Fifth, Fourth and Third Armies, and spent the night of the 8th–9th September at Second Army Headquarters. The commander of the Second Army made the decision to retire behind the Marne early on the 9th of  September, independently (selbstständig). 

"Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch agreed with this conclusion and motored on to the First Army. There, after discussion of the situation with the Chief of the Staff on the afternoon of the 9th of September, he gave the order for  the retreat in the name of the Supreme Command, quoting the powers conferred on him. He was justified in this, for the case provided for in his instructions—the initiation of rearward movements—had arisen. 

"Whether the decision of the Second Army Headquarters and the order of Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch to the First Army Headquarters to retreat were actually necessary from the situation must be decided by historical research in later years. 

"Colonel Hentsch incurs no personal reproach that he went beyond what he was entitled to do. He acted solely in accordance with the instructions given to him by the then Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army. 

"I request that this decision may be circulated down to divisional staffs. 

"By order (signed) LUDENDORFF."  

After the Marne, Hentsch served with some distinction in Group Mackensen's successful Rumanian campaign. He received the Pour le Mérite and promotion to colonel in 1917. He died during an operation on his gallbladder on 13 February 1918. It's unclear whether he saw the results of Ludendorff's inquiry before he died. Despite the existence of the inquiry's report, he was still scapegoated over the decision to retreat in 1914.

Source:  "The Scapegoat of the Battle of the Marne. . .", Brigadier General J.E. Edmonds, The Field Artillery Journal, Vol. 12, 1922

Saturday, January 27, 2024

War Celebrities as Collectibles — A Roads Classic

From Cyril Mazansky's Cigarette Card Collection

The celebrity culture apparently was alive and well during the Great War, if this selection from the collection of regular contributor Cyril Mazansky is any indication. Just as today, celebrities of the day were used to help sell things. Today big contracts are involved, but I have a feeling that none of the parties shown below received big endorsement contracts for helping to sell cigarettes. Some of these images are excellent depictions of their subject, but in other cases—see Kaiser Wilhelm below—you have to wonder if the illustrator had ever seen a photo of the individual.

Click on Images to View Alone

Friday, January 26, 2024

Remembering a Veteran: Johnston of Johnston's Jolly

Johnston at Gallipoli

Johnston’s Jolly was a position overlooking the Anzac sector of Gallipoli held by the Turks for the entirety of the campaign, less one day. It was named after Colonel George Jameson Johnston commander of the 2nd Australian Artillery Brigade, who frequently described his mission as "jollying along" the Turks with his artillery.

Johnston's Jolly was the north end of Plateau 400 in the ANZAC sector, which was captured by the 2nd Australian Infantry Brigade on 25 April 1915, the day of the landing, but recaptured by Turkish forces the following day and remained under Turkish control for the rest of the campaign.

Future Major General George Jameson Johnston (1868–1949), was born in East Melbourne and entered the family firm of Charles Johnston & Co., furniture manufacturers and warehousemen, in Fitzroy. In 1887 he joined the militia as a gunner in the Victorian Field Artillery, was commissioned lieutenant in 1889 and promoted captain in 1895. 

Location of Johnston's Jolly

Johnston volunteered for active service in the South African War and was attached to the 62nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery, as a special service officer. He left Australia in November 1899 as a captain and was promoted major in March 1900. He served at Modder River, did regimental duty with the 62nd Battery as a section commander, and saw action at Klip Drift, Paardeberg and Osfontein before the march on Bloemfontein; he was then attached to a howitzer brigade with the Royal Field Artillery before being invalided home with fever in July 1900.  His brother Lieutenant Alfred Gresham Johnston was killed in action at Rhenoster Kop. Johnston resumed his business activities in Melbourne, was promoted lieutenant-colonel, Australian Military Forces, in 1910 and commanded the Victorian Brigade, Australian Field Artillery.

On 18 August 1914 Johnston was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force as lieutenant-colonel commanding the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade, 1st Australian Division. His 4th Battery landed the first 18-pounder field gun at Anzac on 25 April 1915. The guns of "Johnston's Jolly," situated near Lone Pine, were used, in the current slang of the troops, to "jolly up" the Turks. Johnston remained at Anzac until the evacuation; he was temporary commander of the 1st Divisional Artillery from August to October and from then until late November commanded the 3rd Infantry Brigade; he was promoted colonel and temporary brigadier general in December. 

In January 1916, in Egypt, he was appointed commander of the 2nd Divisional Artillery and sailed for France in March. From 27 April, when his artillery placed its first barrage on the enemy parapet near Armentières, the division's infantry felt "a sure reliance" upon its own gunners. Johnston commanded the 2nd Divisional Artillery in all its engagements from 1916 until late 1917, including the battles of Pozières, Bullecourt, and 3rd Ypres. He relinquished command on 1 November 1917 and returned to Australia to attend to urgent commercial affairs. For distinguished war service he was appointed C.B. and C.M.G. and was mentioned in dispatches four times.

An Australian Shell Lands on Johnston's Jolly

In 1918  he was appointed military administrator of German New Guinea. During his term several of the outlying parts of the territory were brought under more effective control, and he was the first administrator to propose a training scheme for New Guinea district officers. His administration received some public criticism and his appointment was terminated in May 1920.

On returning to Melbourne he resumed his position of governing director of Johnston's Pty, Ltd. and continued his service with the citizen forces, commanding the 3rd Division in 1922–27 with the rank of major general from 1 October 1923. Survived by two sons and a daughter, he died on 23 May 1949

A cemetery named for Johnston's Jolly was constructed after the Armistice and populated with 181 remains found on the surrounding battlefield. There is only one identified individual, although the nationalities of a few other graves are known, and special memorials record the names of 36 Australian soldiers known to be buried in the cemetery.

Sources:  Australian Dictionary of Biography, Ngā Tapuwae Trails (Map), Australian War Memorial

Thursday, January 25, 2024

The Ethnic Divisions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Many non-Austrian citizens of the Dual Monarchy, however, were ambivalent or melancholy about its demise. One quote by Hungarian Sándor Márai seemed to capture the spirit of many: “My homeland, [says a guest in his novel Embers] no longer exists. My homeland was Poland, Vienna, this house, the barracks in the city, Galicia, and Chopin. What’s left? Whatever mysterious substance held it all together no longer works. Everything’s come apart. My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded. When that happens, the only thing to do is go away.”

Click on Image to Enlarge

Source: The ethnic groups of Austria-Hungary in 1910 is based on "Distribution of Races in Austria-Hungary" from the Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911.  (The city names were changed to those in use since 1945.)

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Churchill Foresees the War

First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (right) with Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1912

In 1911, British Home Secretary Winston Churchill became alarmed by the latest diplomatic uproar, known as the Agadir Crisis. He later wrote that, "All the alarm bells throughout Europe began immediately to quiver."

Never reluctant to exceed his brief, Churchill prepared a post-crisis memorandum for the Committee of Imperial Defense in which he foresaw an imminent German-French war. Further, Britain would need to send an expeditionary force to support the French, with an additional force sent from India. The paper included such observations (later proved accurate), that the advancing German would successfully force the Meuse River line initially but be slowed by the Allied defenders. and eventually defeated by their combined forces before Paris.

The memorandum was apparently ignored by the committee, but Churchill, being Churchill, kept thinking and worrying about the possibility of a war starting on the Continent. This recently uncovered letter to a cousin certainly suggests this.

Winston Churchill to the Duke of Marlborough, 6 November 1912

My dear Sunny,

. . . the European situation is far from safe, & anything
might happen. It only needs a little ill will or bad faith
on the part of a great power to

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The Kaiser's Navy from Ironclads to Dreadnoughts to the High Seas Fleet: Two New Works of Naval History

The Kaiser's Navy from Ironclads to Dreadnoughts to the High Seas Fleet
 By Dirk Nottelmann and David M. Sullivan 
 Helion & Co., 2023


German High Seas Fleet, 1914-1918 
 By Angus Konstam, Illus. by Edouard Groult 
 Osprey Pub., 2023

Reviewed by James B. Thomas, PhD 

This Title Can Be Ordered HERE

It seemed appropriate to review these two books together. Both are excellent, and the Konstam book seems almost an extension of the latter part of Nottelmann. Coming in at a whopping three pounds, From Ironclads to Dreadnoughts: The Development of the German Battleship, 1864-1918 feels like a flashback to the days before publication and illustration costs and e-book popularity made such remarkable books a rarity.  

That said, the content of From Ironclads is encyclopedic in its amount and quality of information. As the title suggests, it describes the evolution of German warship development—from the early stages of purchasing ships built in other countries, to German design and construction, all with political and economic considerations in the great competition primarily with the mighty Royal Navy. 

German Ironclad SMS Kaiser Max

The development of the German battleship is parallel to the development of the nation itself, from unification to the great power of the Germany that fought the Great War. While symbolically this is clear, it then becomes ironic that the Imperial Navy played such a minor role in the actual war it was all leading toward. One point the authors make clear is that the goal of the German navy was not to surpass the British but to be able to build enough to be close (a 2:3 ratio was the more realistic goal).

This Title Can Be Ordered HERE

As noted at the beginning of this review, Angus Konstam’s book German High Seas Fleet, 1914-1918 is a good continuing step in the story by Nottlemann and Sullivan.  German High Seas Fleet begins in 1914, when most of the political and indeed cultural goals and dreams of a world-class German navy were on the brink of attainment.  One of the reasons the two books are combined in this review is that Konstam explains some of those developing goals in a more concise, understandable manner.

The best example of this is Tirpitz’s Risk Theory (Risikogedanke). Tirpitz recognized Germany could not catch up to or surpass the size of the Royal Navy; his compromise goal was the Risk Theory. Stated plainly (thanks to Konstam) the principle of Risk Theory is that Germany would produce the biggest, most modern and powerful navy possible. This navy, while not as big as the Royal Navy, would be powerful enough, especially if allied with other nations’ navies, to make a direct confrontation with it too dangerous for the British to risk.  Yes, the Royal Navy would most likely prevail in such a battle, but losses would be so catastrophic that the victory would be Pyrrhic at best. This risk would keep the British from directly challenging Germany’s navy in combat. It can certainly be argued that the Battle of Jutland ultimately disproved both Britain’s unwillingness to engage and their inability to risk potential losses.

Elements of the High Seas Fleet in Kiel Harbor

Ideally, the Nottlemann/Sullivan and Konstam books should be read together. Ironclads to Dreadnoughts provides the background and a remarkable collection of images, facts and figures, while German High Seas Fleet explains things in such a way that it all makes sense.

James B. Thomas, PhD 


Monday, January 22, 2024

What Happened at Aubers Ridge?

By David Craig

The poor old Northamptons were in the firing line and we were reinforcements. . . It was simply raining lead, what with shells and machine guns. . . I stopped one through the hip but had sense enough not to stop. . .  The ditch was full of wounded and dead. . .the order came along to tell the Northamptons and the King's Royal Rifles to get back the best way they could. Couldn't take the position and no more reinforcements.

Albert Money, the King's Royal Rifles
9 May 1915 at Aubers Ridge

Barely Discernible in the Distance Beyond the British & German Trenches, Aubers Ridge Would Prove Impregnable and Would Not Be Abandoned by the German Army Until October 1918 

[In the Spring of 1915] Now convinced of the British intent and ability to mount offensive operations, the French proposed a series of joint attacks in the Artois, the BEF to operate on the left flank of major French attacks by their Tenth Army over an 8-mile frontage in the Notre Dame de Lorette/Vimy Ridge area. Fifteen miles to the north, Haig's First Army—ten divisions and 600 guns strong—would mount its attack, carried out at the strong request of the French to draw German reserves away from the French assault [to the south in Artois.]

The British expected great things for the coming battle. They hoped to build on the undoubted success of the early part of Neuve Chapelle in March and take the feature known as the Aubers Ridge. Douglas Haig planned a two-pronged initial attack, with 1st Corps and the Indian Corps on a front of 2400 yards in the south and 8th Division of IV Corps on a 1500-yard front in the north. The two attacks were to be mounted 6000 yards apart. The plan was that once the two breaches in the German line had been achieved, the reserves would spread out in front of the Aubers Ridge and advance eastward. 

The German defenses in front of the Aubers Ridge had been considerably improved after the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. In addition to thickening the defensive area with the addition of a fortified second line and the addition of two or three times the previous amounts of barbed wire, they augmented machine gun numbers by the addition of two per battalion firing at ground level from concrete bunkers and carefully sited to enable enfilade (flanking) fire to sweep no man's land. 

Three British Battlefields of Early 1915

The destruction of these defenses by artillery fire was crucial to the success of the infantry attack. Similar fire plans to those used at Neuve Chapelle had been prepared, but on a larger scale. The British had assembled 121 heavy guns and 516 field guns and light howitzers. In addition, French heavy guns of D'Urbal's French Tenth Army, attacking Vimy Ridge on the right of the British, would fire in support of the BEF southern attack. The BEF, however, had very small stocks of ammunition. The preparatory bombardment had to be limited to 40 minutes as compared to the French Tenth Army's four days. Moreover, much of the ammunition proved faulty and either did not explode at all or, worse, exploded in the gun. 

The Aubers Ridge attack on 9 May failed in the face of determined German resistance from a defense line almost completely undamaged by the preliminary artillery fire. So little were the Germans troubled by the British effort that German reserves, while put on the alert, were not moved forward. 

At 5:00 a.m. the preliminary barrage started. Ninety-six field guns were tasked with wire cutting and 46 howitzers targeted the German breastworks. At 5:30 the barrage became even more intense and the wirecutting guns switched from shrapnel to HE shells in order to add to the destruction of the German breastworks. Ten minutes later the guns "lifted" 600 yards and the infantry climbed over the frontline breastworks into No Man's Land.

German Machine Guns on the Ridge

In the south, German machine guns, undamaged by the artillery barrage, opened up almost immediately, sweeping across the top of the British breastworks and killing many attackers as they attempted to get into no man's land; nonetheless many men were able to form a line sheltering from the German fire. As the guns lifted, these men of the three attacking brigades rose and charged the German trenches but were met by a devastating fire from both rifles and machine guns. The majority of these guns were firing from ground level, at ankle height, a particularly effective method of downing attacking infantry. It was clear that the preparatory barrage had failed to suppress German firepower and, additionally, had only partly succeeded in cutting wire and creating breaches in the enemy breastworks. 

Here and there a few small parties managed to enter the German front line, but none returned. Few of the attackers were able to get more than halfway across no-man's-land, where they took shelter in what cover they could find. The British commanders attempted to renew the attack, but any movement brought about fierce German artillery fire and it proved impossible to mount a renewed attack for the rest of the day.

In the north the attack fared better, with some areas well cleared of wire, and 250 yards of German front line captured along with prisoners from the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment. The attackers succeeded in reaching the German reserve trench, but these successes were short-lived. The attackers were quickly isolated by attacks from uncaptured areas of breastwork into a no-man's-land now being swept by heavy fire, with all movement either forward, lateral,or to the rear impossible.

British Artillerymen

At 6:00 p.m., when the scale of the failure became known to Haig at First Army HQ, he cancelled orders for a renewal of the attack on the following day and broke off the battle. During a conference on the evening of 9 May it had become clear that BEF artillery ammunition stocks were now so low that no follow-up attack could be executed. A total of 11,619 BEF soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing.

The Official History puts almost the whole responsibility for the failure at Aubers Ridge on the artillery. Lack of ammunition, unreliability of ammunition, defective fuses, inaccurate gunnery due to barrel wear, the need to allow for meteorological conditions, and breakdowns in communication between the front line and the guns all contributed to a failure of the artillery to support the infantry attack by destroying the German frontline defenses (particularly the machine guns) and the German gun positions beyond.

"The brief 40 minute bombardment, though it raised a curtain of dust and smoke immediately above the enemy's front line, did no appreciable damage, and merely gave the enemy warning to stand-to to meet an assault which he had been expecting." British Official History.

Source: Originally presented in the July 2015 issue of Over the Top

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Henri Farré—France's Premier Combat Aviation Artist

All Images Can Be Enlarged by Right-Clicking on Them

Henri Farré (1871–1934) in 1918

By David F. Beer

Henri Farré  is considered to be the grand-père of combat aviation art, yet surprisingly little has been written about his life. He was born on 31 July 1871, in Foix, a small town in southern France. From his first exhibition in 1897 to the outbreak of war in 1914, little is recorded of Farré. By his teenage years he must have had a deep interest and gifted ability in painting since he was able to attend the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, where students were selected by competitive examination. At the age of 26 he held his first exhibition at the prestigious Salon, the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Français.

He was in Buenos Aires when war was declared in 1914, reportedly painting portraits for rich South Americans. He hurried back to France and on his departure from Argentina the consul handed him “a secret letter of instructions.” These facts were recorded in an interesting book Farré published in 1919 on his wartime adventures as an aerial artist. The book is still available in reprint, titled Skyfighters of France: An Account of the French War in the Air During the First World War. Originally written in French, it was soon “Englished” by Catharine Rush. A current publisher, Leonaur Books of London, concisely  summarized the book on its back cover:

Henry Farré was an observer with French bombers during the Great War and was thus in a position to have a clear understanding of the subject of his writings. This fascinating book is partly comprised of Farré’s own experiences and his view—combined with contributions from his comrades in arms—of the French effort for the war in the air. . . This is a vital book for every student of the early air forces in combat.

 Besides being thoroughly enjoyable, Farré’s memoir provides a wealth of first-hand information on the activities and attitudes of  French aviators and the planes they flew during World War One.

Captain Fequant Returns on His Shield 

The memoir opens with four pilots, all friends of the author, giving brief narratives of their own combat experiences in 1917 while involved in a “fight in the air,” observation sorties, bombing runs, or directing artillery by wireless. These narratives set the tone for the rest of the book, which is enthusiastic, patriotic, and comradely. The French flyers are certain they’re on the winning side and that victory could never be achieved without them. 

When a pilot has brought down his fifth plane, the chief of the squadron  telegraphs his fifth victory to headquarters, and that gives him the right to be  carried in the next general  orders to the whole army  with a citation of service  rendered…whenever pilots  merited this distinction,  their machinists called them "Aces". . .

They admire the American Lafayette Escadrille, which, Farré claims, “ranks the highest among our squadrons.” They’re also aware of their potential fate. On seeing a German bomber shot down in flames, Farré wrote 

Is it possible that the occupants remained unscathed? Imagine, if you can, the torture of those two human beings during the five minutes they spent before they crashed to earth. I pray God they had a swift death (p. 95).

Caudron Aeroplane Directing Artillery Fire between
the Argonne and Verdun

Due to his age (43) when war broke out, Farré was unlikely to have been called to active duty right away. However, he  enthusiastically volunteered and was able to get himself assigned as the first aviation artist in the French army. He admires the nerve of the pilot who takes him, a “middle aged and slightly overweight” passenger, up on his maiden flight as an observer. From this point he appears to have taken to flying as an observer/artist with no qualms, fitting in well with the airmen of Groupe de Bombardement Number 1. They came to like  and respect him and his work, and he admired them. He was given the rank of lieutenant observateur-bombardier.

Farré wrote:

The bombing squadron was created as an independent unit, and was intended to operate over the whole front, under orders received direct from General Headquarters. A sudden call would send us flying from one end of the front to the other on special service. . . (p. 29).

He was fortunate to be where the action was, and he took it all in— not just the flying but also the hectic life on the ground as aircraft were  prepared for take-off, secured after landing, repaired, or retrieved after  a crash. Often he was close to the combat—or in the thick of it—and  once he saved his aircraft by precariously stretching out over the fuselage and loosening a stuck bomb. He went on at least one night raid. He also took an active part in the social life of the squadron, apparently enjoying the dining, drinking, and conversations. He made close friends with the flyers, all younger than him and several of whom were to sit for him as he painted their portraits. While many of them were to die in action, he himself never suffered a scratch.

The artist would often make notes or rough sketches of scenes from  his aircraft and then paint them in full when back on the ground. One  month was spent at Dunkerque with a squadron of “sea-aviators”  flying hydroplanes, and he went with them on a bombing raid of  Zeebrugge. When he completed his month with the hydroplane squadron he had produced 20 paintings plus many more sketches to be completed later.

Georges Guynemer

Looking at Farré’s war art, it is not hard to see how he was influenced by the Impressionists—even while remaining original in both his subject matter and his approach. In general Impressionism seeks to elicit an emotional or psychological response to a scene or object in a way a photograph never could, thus capturing the essence of a subject rather than its technical details. The artists of this school, which included Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Manet, and Degas, tended to paint landscapes in bright pure colors and developed a fondness for white. They liked to include movement in their work and to approach subjects from unusual visual angles.

With an aerodrome as his studio,  finishing much of his work after  witnessing aerial combat from angles unseen by most people, and  sensitive to the sky around him in all its moods, Farré the artist with  Impressionist leanings seems to have found his forte. He depicted  actions from an aviator’s perspective and was indeed the grandfather  of combat aviation art. Announcing his visit to Chicago in 1918 with an  exhibit of 140 canvasses, The Chicago Daily Tribune of 3 July 1918, wrote:

As historical documents, his paintings are unique. As pictures, they are thrilling. As works of art they are pioneers in a new field…. Action and brilliant color are the prime characteristics of this aviation art.

A Night Bombardment 

Others noted that Farré’s war art captured both the danger and immediacy of aerial warfare, and in René Martel’s French Strategic and Tactical Bombardment Forces of World War I (translated by Allen Suddaby, Scarecrow Press, 2007), we read how his

. . . tall, alert frame swung into the cockpit on days the bombing expeditions took place and brought back from the open sky a collection of rapid and thrilling sketches. Visions of war? Of course. Farré also knew how to capture the changing aspects of the air routes, their bizarre cavalcades of clouds, their interplay of shadow and light, the delicate greens and reds of the Lorraine mornings, the bleeding purple of the evenings in Champagne or the Somme region, the strange flight of the earthly horizons, which settle or rise at the edgeof the wings, to the changing rhythm of the flight (pp. 31-32).

Sadly there is no published collection of Farré’s artwork. He did produce a portfolio of 20 aviation scenes and four portraits of flying aces, published in Paris in 1917 with the title Ailes glorieuses (Glorious Wings).

Even before the war ended, the French government authorized  Farré to travel to the United States to show his pictures in major cities. His exhibitions in New York and Chicago attracted considerable  attention, especially among high society, who welcomed him and a  handful of accompanying French officers warmly. It is claimed he  produced more than 200 during the war. Some he gave to friends and a few others may be lost.

Farré was awarded the Legion of Honor and several other decorations for his war service. After the armistice he spent most of his time in Chicago, where he met Marguerite Graison, a modiste (milliner) who designed and made ladies’ hats. They married, and he set up his home and studio in the Drake Towers in Chicago but often returned to France to exhibit his portraits and landscapes. In May of 1934 he was awarded a gold medal from the Salon des Artistes Français for his portrait of Mme Doumer, the widow of the president of France, Paul Doumer, who had been assassinated on 13 June 1931.

Farré's Memoir Can Be Ordered HERE

Lieutenant Henri Farré died in Chicago on 6 October 1934, age 63.  His body was returned to France for burial. An obituary in the New York Times praised his work by noting that he 

…did not perform his task by hovering in the cloud miles from the battlefield. He circled right over the scene of action and, oblivious to the shells, noted the details, which he sketched as soon as  he reached the ground.

Today, 69 of Farré’s paintings, donated by Laurance Rockefeller  in the 1950s, are part of the U.S. Air Force Art Program. His work was on exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in 2014–2015. Another smaller collection can be viewed at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach. That Henri Farré is still known today as a noted artist is a tribute to this man who not only thoroughly experienced aerial warfare in the First World War but also painted it.

Sources:  This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of World War One Illustrated. Presented by permission of the author and publisher. Photos from WikiCommons and USAF.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Lit. 1918: The Doughboy's Contribution to American Literature — A Roads Classic

The American experience on the battlefields of Europe had a tremendous influence on the nation's literature for the rest of the 20th century. Name these literary notables from the AEF.  Answers below.  (This is not a comprehensive listing.) 

1. He served as an artillery officer with the 4th Artillery Brigade, 4th Division. He would  later create the detective Mr. Moto and write satirical novels about the upper crust, including the award-winning The Late George Apley

2. Another Doughboy artillery officer, he would win three Pulitzer Prizes for poetry and a play, and would serve as Librarian of Congress. 

3. A sergeant staffer on Stars and Stripes, he was already an established drama critic before the war. Later, when he was nationally known, his unique personality inspired  one of America's greatest comedies, The Man Who Came to Dinner

4. Wounded while serving with the 28th Pennsylvania Division in the Second Battle of  the Marne, he wrote one of the greatest Doughboy memoirs, Toward the Flame. Then he dedicated himself to writing historical novels, most famously, the best-selling Anthony Adverse

5. This sergeant with the 79th Division, who participated in the capture of Montfaucon, later became one of the founders of "hard-boiled" American fiction with such works as  The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity

6. What about those Marines?! For some reason the Marine Brigade of the 2nd Division  produced at least four notable authors of memoirs, novels, and plays about the AEF at war. 

a. After losing a leg at Belleau Wood, he turned to writing. He collaborated on a famous play about the Yanks at war, What Price Glory?, and later wrote an anecdotal but comprehensive history of the American experience in World War I, The Doughboys.   

b. His innovative novel, Company K, includes the Unknown Soldier as a character. 

c. His novel, Through the Wheat, chronicles the psychological destruction of a young Marine. 

d. A career Marine who was awarded the Navy Cross in the Great War, he chronicled  the intensity of combat on the Western Front in Fix Bayonets!

7. A pioneering neurosurgeon who served with the British and American Medical Services, he wrote a great memoir of the war, From a Surgeon's Journal, and was later  an award-winning biographer. 

8. This authorial team were both veterans of the Lafayette Flying Corps and the U.S. Air Service. Their most famous collaboration was The Bounty Trilogy.



1. John P. Marquand

2. Archibald MacLeish

3. Alexander Wolcott

4. Hervey Allen

5. James M. Cain

6a. Laurence Stallings

6b. William March Campbell

6c. Thomas Boyd

6d. John W. Thomason

7. Harvey Cushing

8. Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

Source: Originally presented in the Spring 2012 issue of THE JOURNAL OF THE WORLD WAR ONE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Down the Home Stretch: The Canadians at Valenciennes, November 1918

Canadian Troops Entering Valenciennes from the West

After a general retreat through October 1918, the German Army decided to make a stand in Valenciennes, a strategically located city of several thousand French civilians, and the last major French city still under German control. The German commanders believed that the Allies would not bombard a city full of French civilians and further consolidated their position by flooding the area around the city.

The key strategies that made Valenciennes a success despite the odds were taking the high ground outside the city (Mont Houy) first, and massing the artillery to use for barrage, fire from three sides, counter-battery and targeted strikes. The battle of Valenciennes was also one of the few examples of urban combat during the war. Military commanders had been trying to avoid it, with General Currie in particular worried that the Canadian Corps had not been adequately trained for urban warfare.

On 27 October, General Horne, General Currie and the British 22nd Corps Commander discussed the best way to take Valenciennes. They decided that they needed to take Mont Houy, a fortified hill overlooking the city first. The plan was for the 51st Division of the British 22nd Corps to take Mont Houy and press on to the sunken road (the “Red Line”) on 28 October, then the 4th Canadian Division would pass through the 51st and take the “Blue Line” which included the outskirts of Valenciennes. Then, on 1 November, the Canadian 4th Division would take the high ground to the east of the city, to allow the rest of the corps to cross the Escaut canal and take the “Green Line,” which included the city.

On 28 October, the 51st Division failed to reach the Red Line in the face of strong German opposition, but by night they held most of the southern slope of the hill, Le Poirier Station, and the village of Famars. As a result, the plan to take Valenciennes had to be revised, and quickly, since the city was a key point in the left flank of the major British offensive scheduled for 3 November. The Blue and Green lines were thus merged into one operation for the 10th Canadian Brigade, backed by mass artillery and supported by the 49th British Division on the right. The brigade would assault Valencinennes from south to east, and the 12th Canadian Brigade would do the mopping-up after crossing the Canal de l’Escaut. The new plan was set for 1 November.

Sergeant Hugh Cairns of the 46th Battalion already had the DCM, which he won at Vimy. At Valenciennes, he received Canada’s last Victoria Cross of the war by single-handedly charging two machine-gun nests. He was wounded late in the day on 1 November and died of his wounds the next day.

On the night of 29 October, the 47th and 44th Canadian Battalions took over the British lines and sent out battle patrols to reconnoiter enemy positions and barbed wire. In preparation for the battle, the Canadian Corps Heavy Artillery was ordered to bombard the German positions day and night. The 10th Infantry Brigade alone had over 250 field and siege guns in support. One major complication was the presence of many civilians still in the city. The army wanted to spare them from heavy shellfire and therefore focused on targeted attacks on known German military strongholds, such as the nearby village of Marly.

The first objective was Mont Houy, for which was prepared a unique artillery barrage with frontal creeping barrage, enfilade fire, and oblique fire. Also heavy artillery support from across the canal (the pieces could not yet cross). Two machine gun battalions were also in support, while other artillery provided a smokescreen for the attack. The Canadians also invested manpower and almost 50 guns in an extensive counter-battery to find German machine gun nests in buildings in the city and bomb them and to take out enemy artillery pieces.

The days preceding the attacks, as well as 1 November itself, had terrible weather, and when . the soldiers of the 44h and 46th Battalions started out of their positions at 5:15 a.m. on 1 November, they did so under the pouring rain. The Canadians advanced quickly behind a rolling barrage, but were forced to put on their respirators due to German gas shells. German artillery fire, however, was weak, both as a result of the effective Canadian counter-battery actions of the previous days and poor quality shells.

The Red line objective was achieved right on schedule, with the 44th Battalion taking Mount Houy in 45 minutes. The German soldiers, “stupefied by the overwhelming barrage,” began surrendering en masse. The Blue Line objective, in the outskirts of Valenciennes, was taken at 10:20 a.m. by the 46th, despite being outnumbered by two or three to one by the defenders. The 47th Battalion reached the canal at that same time. Soon after, the Canadians started running into stiff resistance in the town of Marly, across the canal and coming under heavy fire from machine guns in the south of the city. During the morning the 12th Brigade and 3rd Division establish bridgeheads over the Escaut, while the others encircled and pushed into the city. By noon the Canadians had reached the heart of the city.

Canadians with French Gendarmes and Civilians
outside the Hotel de Ville

At the end of the day, the Germans were still in some parts of the city but were pushed out gradually throughout the night by the Canadian 12th Brigade. The 54th Battalion attacked the village of Marly on the morning of 2 November but discovered when they reached the village that the German Army had already retreated. By 8:30 a.m., the Canadians were through to the far outskirts of the city and by the end of that day had completely taken the city.

Casualties: German—1800 captured, 800 killed. Canadian—80 killed, 300 wounded. The German killed-to-captured ratio, which was unusually high, has been a matter of controversy ever since the battle. Some say that Canadian soldiers were less willing to take prisoners after four years of fighting, especially after seeing how badly the local French populations had been treated by the occupiers.

Also, see our article WHAT HAPPENED AT MONT HOUY

Source:  The Vimy Foundation